Office Hours: All Those Errors in the Bible, Part 2
Ever wonder if there are mistakes in the Bible? Join in on their conversation.
“OK, Prof,” Nathan was saying. “Then I’ve got you after all. The Bible contradicts itself about all of those things.” Nathan patted his notebook. “It’s all in here. Where do you want me to start?”
I smiled. “I’ll let you give one example from each category.”
“How about the nature of man?”
He leafed through his notebook. “Here. You’d think that at least the Bible could keep straight about whether man is sinful, wouldn’t you? But it can’t. Ecclesiastes says, ‘Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.’ But James says, ‘The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.'”Ecclesiastes 7:20, James 5:16 (all quotations RSV).
He looked up at me. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“You mean you’re finished?”
“There’s no point talking about the prayer of a righteous man if there aren’t any righteous men. Don’t you get it?”
“Nathan, you’re proof-texting.”
“Proof-texting. Pulling verses out of context to make a point.”
“So what’s the context?”
“Creation, Fall and Redemption. Man was created good, but he lost his innocence by tearing himself from God. The Bible is the story of how God opens a path back to Himself. The Ecclesiastes verse reminds us that we can’t follow that path by our strength alone, but through Ezekiel God promises, ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.’ After Christ comes, we begin to experience this new heart and spirit. That’s why Paul writes to his friends at Rome, ‘thanks be to God, that you … having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.'”Ezekiel 36:26-27, Romans 6:17-18.
“Are you saying that a man can become righteous?”
“By his own strength, no. With the help of Christ, yes. It doesn’t happen overnight. If you mean someone who never sins, there are no righteous men. If you mean someone who is walking in the path of Christ’s help, there are.”
Nathan sighed. “You make it so hard just to read a book. Nevermind. The next kind of inconsistency I wanted to talk about was about the nature of God.” He put his nose back in his notebook. “Here’s one. Is He a God of peace or a God of war?”
“What does your notebook tell you?”
“It tells me that the Bible can’t decide. The Old Testament says, ‘The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.’ But the New Testament says, ‘The God of peace be with you all.'”Exodus 15:3, Romans 15:33.
“Nathan, tell me which biblical figure said this: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.'”Matthew 10:34. Jesus is not here speaking of the wars of ancient Israel in the promised land. He goes on to explain that those who follow Him must expect to suffer strife and rejection; they may be rejected even by their own families.
“I’m guessing Moses. In the Old Testament.”
“No, Jesus. In the New.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Nope. How about this? In the Old Testament, which you think is so warlike, which qualities are most often attributed to God?”
“I’ll say anger and jealousy.”
“False. Love and compassion.”
“Prof, are you sure you’re not getting the two testaments mixed up?”
“Not at all. Both testaments are describing the same God, but over the course of salvation history He discloses Himself more and more fully. It turns out that He’s fierce with us because He loves us. He has too much compassion to put up with our self-destruction.”
“I don’t like how this is going,” said Nathan.
“The next category was the meaning of life.”
He fluttered through the leaves of the notebook again. “I don’t actually have a biblical inconsistency about that subject. Will you take one about how to live your life?”
I laughed. “Shoot.”
“One of the Proverbs says, ‘He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.’ But Paul wrote, ‘To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.’ See? First the Bible says getting married is good, then it says getting married is bad.”Proverbs 18:22, 1 Corinthians 7:8.
“No, it doesn’t. Read what Paul wrote before the part you read.”
“That wasn’t at the atheist website where I, uh —”
“I’ll tell you. He wrote: ‘I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.’1 Corinthians 7:7, emphasis added. See? He wasn’t calling marriage bad. He was saying that lifelong faithful marriage and lifelong consecrated celibacy are both gifts from God. One is just better. Do you have a better example?”
He became a little pink. “That was my best one. Maybe I should go on to the last category.”
“Was that one the history and plan of salvation?”
“Yeah. You want history first, or plan?”
“Whichever you prefer.”
“All right, history. Here’s a great one — the discovery of the empty tomb. The story is told in four different places, but all four versions are different.”
“Tell me more.”
“According to Matthew, Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ made the discovery. It was ‘toward the dawn,’ and an angel spoke to them. According to Mark, the discovery was made by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. In this version the sun had risen, and it wasn’t an angel but a young man in a white robe who spoke to the women. According to Luke, the discovery was made by the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee. It was ‘early dawn,’ and they were spoken to not by one man but two men in ‘dazzling apparel.’ Finally, in John’s version, Mary Magdalene made the discovery all alone. It was ‘still dark,’ and nobody spoke to her, at least not until later, when she visited the tomb a second time.”Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 23:55-24:9, and John 20:1-18.
“Nathan, I’m surprised at you. This example is almost as weak as the one you started out with — that business about bats not being birds.”
“I don’t see how,” he said stubbornly. “One woman is not two women is not three women. After dawn is not still dark. An angel is not a young man, and one man is not two men.”
“No, but remember how stories are told. When someone is telling a story that involves a number of people, it’s not unusual to mention only the most important ones. Don’t you do that? For example, John’s account doesn’t say that only Mary Magdalene visited the tomb; she may have been accompanied by others. Matthew’s account doesn’t say that only one angel spoke to the women; he may have chosen to mention just the leader. And the fact that John’s account doesn’t mention anyone speaking to Mary Magdalene doesn’t mean that no one did. Presumably John thought it was more important to tell what Mary Magdalene did next — she ran and told Peter.”
“But were the beings who spoke to the women angels or men? You can’t deny that the stories disagree about that. And what about the time of day?”
“They don’t disagree; they merely focus on different details. Matthew tells you what he thinks the being whom he mentions was. Mark and Luke are content to tell you what the beings whom they mention looked like. As to the time of day, maybe it was cloudy. I’ve seen lots of dark dawns. Haven’t you?”
“Even if all that is true, Professor T, why don’t all four stories focus on the same details, and why don’t they tell all of them?”
“Who says they have to? Why is it necessary? Isn’t it helpful to have four different versions, told from four different perspectives?”
“Well, I’m not — I mean —”
“Nevermind. You were going to try to prove that the Bible is inconsistent about the plan of salvation, weren’t you?”
He brightened. “I was going to. What is the fate of the righteous, Professor?”
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord, they flourish in the courts of our God.”Psalms 92:12-13.
“Yeah,” he said, tapping the notebook, “I’ve got that quote too. It’s from the Psalms. But I’ve also got this one, from Isaiah: ‘The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands.’Isaiah 57:1. So which is it — do the righteous perish or flourish?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but before I could speak, he held up his hand and fixed me with his eye. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you answer. Considering the way you sliced up my other examples, maybe you’ll slice up this one too. Before you begin, though, I want you to know that you haven’t been convincing me. So when you do finish slicing up my example, I’ve got a different question for you.”
I groaned. “Not another supposed contradiction.”
“No, a different kind of question. And you won’t worm out of this one.”
Copyright 2008 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.